Pretty Smart (For a Jock): The Burden Of Being An Athlete With A Brain

“I have to tell you, I’m a little surprised.”

“About what?”

“Well, you’re pretty smart, for a basketball player.”

This is an excerpt from a lengthy text message exchange with a girl whom I don’t yet know very well, but whom I will, eventually. We will date for several weeks before, like many girls in Los Angeles, she is lost to the wind.

But this is from back when we were just getting to know one another, before either of us had laid eyes on the other, if you must know. (We “met” through Twitter. Insert eye-roll here.) Back when our texts consisted of mock date dialog and Lord of the Rings references and curious observations about the worlds around us.

I didn’t react to her backhanded compliment. I’m used to them. Even though I’m not a basketball player anymore, it seems that people will always think of me as one.

And that is not necessarily a good thing.

*     *     *     *     *

When I was a child, I pored over word lists and won my school’s spelling bee five times. I was in the “gifted” program. I entered math contests (and sometimes beat the home-schooled kids). My mother once had to explain to me how to respond to my fellow students when they’d say things like, “Boy that test was hard, wasn’t it?” and I was at a loss for words.

What I’m saying is that my roots are firmly planted in the soil of Nerdville.

In high school, my nerd-dom was augmented with geekery: I was an Eagle Scout, my first kiss was at 17, and in high school I was more likely to be found in a friend’s basement playing the video game Doom and listening to Soundgarden than I was to be found with anyone who had protuberant breasts not caused by overconsumption of Mountain Dew and Pringles.

Oh, I was also a basketball player.

My offhand classification as an athlete continued when I left for college: Iowa State University, which I attended not because of a full-ride basketball scholarship, but because I’d knocked the PSAT over the Green Monster and was eligible for a full-ride, National Merit Scholarship.

When I arrived on campus, I knew that it would not aid my basketball career to admit to my academic proclivities. I did my best to disabuse everyone of the notion that I was the nerdy kid. I had an agreement with Tim Floyd, then the coach at Iowa State: no one could know that I was, technically, a walk-on. We figured out a way for me to eat with the other athletes, and no one mentioned my status in the newspaper. (One could have done the math and figured out that the number of players outstripped the number of scholarships but, because Floyd was notorious for bringing players in and out on a whim, no one did.)

Now, you might think that I was worrying too much about what other people thought. You’d be wrong. I was right to downplay my bookishness, at least as far as basketball was concerned. My pale face made it difficult enough to fit in; adding “smart” wasn’t going to help.

*     *     *     *     *

I kept at it and kept at it, refusing to acknowledge my dorkitude, even if the engineering college did its best to foil my plans. (The folks on the engineering department’s advertising board once made a basketball card of me; it touted both my scoring average and my GPA. I didn’t show it around.)

By graduation, I was ready to declare my disguise a success. I was considered nice and well spoken enough, but I was no Shane Battier. Was I deceiving people? Probably. But betraying my true nature launched a professional career in which no one cared whether I’d read “Anna Karenina”—they only wanted to know if I could remember the plays.

Toward the end of that career, I began what I thought to be an inevitable re-balance—away from the jock side of the seesaw and, if not to the nerdy side, at least to the middle. I started writing about my life in basketball, with designs on a slow arc away from the game.

But then I quit playing and I noticed: the basketball thing wasn’t going away.

It doesn’t help, of course, that I look like a basketball player: 6’9” and 230 pounds with shoulders that’ll make you think twice about sitting next to me on an airplane. Or that I can’t help talking about my decade-long basketball career, as regular readers of this column might have noticed.

At first, it wasn’t so bad, the fact that people expected me to be dumb. But now, well…now it drives me fucking insane. Not because I don’t ever want to talk about basketball—I just started a podcast on the subject, and here I am writing about it again.

No, what drives me nuts is the reduced expectations, the caveats, the dismissals, the assumptions that I’m not very smart.

It’s not that I don’t I understand. I once listened to three guys have a locker room debate over how many stars are on the American flag: 47, 48, or 51. I once overheard a player ask, as we got off the airplane with the gigantic Atlanta Hawks logo on it, if we would be taking the same plane back.

It’s just that now that I’m in the middle of it, I don’t see how (or when) it’s going to end.

*     *     *     *     *

I realize that, on the surface, this is all a little snot-nosed, a little #firstworldproblems. We all face stereotypes. Is my plight so different from that of a young woman trying to break into upper management? Or of a Catholic priest trying to do right by the boy he’s mentoring? Or the beautiful model (male or female) who ages out into a new career but never shakes the perception that he or she is hired for his looks rather than his or her talents?

In fact, you might say I’m lucky to have such problems, because of all the stigmas to be stuck with, having played in the NBA is certainly far from the worst.

But when you’re thinking that, think about the text that girl sent me. Think about how deflating it would feel if, because of a previous occupation, people habitually discounted you, categorized you, or treated you like a child because you played a child’s game.

Are some jocks dumb? Sure. And if you want to joke that you don’t care what Derrick Rose got on his SAT so long as he can count to four wins in a playoff series, I’m fine with that.
But let’s say you meet Mr. Rose, or me, and let’s say one of us impresses you with his wit, his knowledge of world affairs, his devastating ability to spell challenging words in high-pressure settings, or even his ability to correctly tie a tie.

And let’s say you want to send a compliment his way.

In that case, I think I speak for Mr. Rose as well as myself when I say that you have our permission to leave out “for a basketball player.”

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